The Arab-Jewish Clashes in Acre and the Connection to Israel’s Extremist Settlers
The Arab-Jewish Clashes in Acre and the Connection to Israel’s Extremist Settlers
A man walks past a car with a damaged windshield following the Acre clashes. By Ali Abunimah Palestine Center Fellow
Acre, a mixed city of approximately 52,000 people in northern Israel, recently witnessed four days of violent clashes between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jewish residents. While the facts and meaning of these events have been heavily contested, one of the underreported factors is the extent to which militant Israeli settlers from the West Bank, funded by donors in the United States, have instigated tension in Acre and other cities in an attempt to reduce their Arab populations. This brief will summarize the facts available from public sources and provide background and analysis.
Israeli leaders have presented the events in Acre as unfortunate intercommunal violence in an otherwise peaceful city. Palestinians have perceived them-correctly it would appear-as being related to efforts organized by Jewish extremists to force Arabs out of the city (Palestinians in Israel are citizens of the state and are often also referred to as “Arabs”).
The disturbances began after a Palestinian resident of Acre drove into the eastern predominantly Jewish neighborhood around midnight on Wednesday, 9 October 2008 during the observance of the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday. This prompted a violent reaction from Jewish residents and soon, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, “Police warded off hundreds of Jewish rioters, chanting ‘death to the Arabs,’ and trying to storm the city’s main road.”1 As word spread of the attack on the Arab driver, hundreds of Arab youths came to the scene.
Violent clashes between Jewish and Arab residents continued for several nights as police intervened with riot control methods including water cannons. According to Israeli police, many Arab families had to be evacuated and about a dozen Arab homes were set on fire. 2
Brutal scenes were alleged and witnessed over four days. For example, an Israeli journalist witnessed Jewish youths armed with stones moving around the city looking for Palestinian citizens to attack and shouting, “Death to the Arabs.” In one case, they mistakenly attacked a Jew (most of Acre’s Jewish residents are Mizrahi Jews who originally came to Israel from Arab countries). 3
When Arab residents, who were forced out of their homes by Jewish attacks, attempted to return under police guard to retrieve belongings, they were stoned by Jews who shouted racial epithets at them. 4 Israel army radio and Arab residents of the city claimed that dozens of extremists affiliated with the West Bank settler movement had come in to Acre to take part in the violence (see below).5 La’a Ramal, an Arab resident whose home was attacked, said that her house had been torched three times in recent years, and several families had already left the area as a result of persistent intimidation. 6
Jewish residents told reporters that Arabs armed with axes came into their neighborhood, destroyed cars and shops and shouted, “Death to the Jews.” David Azoulay, an Israeli Jewish Knesset member from the religious Shas party who lives in Acre, said, “I myself heard them [the Arabs] calling, ‘Allahu Akbar! Kill the Jews!’” This was denied by Palestinian Israeli Knesset member Abbas Zakour, who also lives in the city. 7 Other reports stated that rumors had spread through the Arab old city that an Arab man had been killed, prompting Arab residents into the streets. 8
In the end, 54 people-Jews and Arabs-were arrested and about 100 cars and several dozen shops were damaged. Several minor injuries were reported. While Jews and Arabs took part in the violence, on 12 October 2008, on the third day of the disturbances, Major-General Shimon Koren, commander of Israel’s Northern District police, said the riots had been instigated by Jews and “the majority of rioters causing disturbances in [Acre] are Jews.”9
How Did It Begin?
According to Acre resident Tawfiq Jamal’s own account, he drove into a predominantly Jewish area with his son and a friend at around 11 p.m. in order to pick up his daughter from the home of relatives where she had been helping prepare baked sweets for a wedding. When they arrived, according to Jamal:
I asked my son to take the baking dishes out of the car and proceeded to walk (toward the house) when (the Jews) suddenly began hurling stones at us. The stones hit my son and the car. My son was lying down because [he] was hit in the face, back and chest; I managed to grab him and pull him into the building.
The three men went into the building and called the police and emergency services, who arrived after a few minutes. However, Jamal stated, “Throughout the entire time, despite police presence, the [Jewish] youngsters continued to throw rocks and chant ‘death to the Arabs,’ while my son’s face was bleeding and his friend almost passed out.”10
Jamal recounted that he and the two youths were then evacuated by police and told to take shelter in a squad car. When the car did not start, the police fled and told Jamal and the two youths to do the same. Jamal stated that they were saved only by a Jewish night watchman who hid them in his guard booth, locked the door and turned off the lights. Jamal compared his situation to that of two Israeli soldiers wearing civilian clothes who were captured and brutally killed by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah in December 2000 and feared that his group’s fate would be the same.
Jamal strenuously denied allegations he had been drinking and deliberately started the incident by playing loud music. Israeli police also alleged that an unnamed Arab youth had broken into a mosque and used the loudspeaker system to alert Arab residents of the attack and to call for help after receiving a phone call from Jamal’s brother. They stated the suspect had not been arrested because he had fled. 11 Acre Police Commander Avraham Edri partially confirmed Jamal’s account, telling the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee that: When my officers arrived at the scene, they had to handle 300-400 people who had already lifted the driver’s car in the air. Our first mission was to prevent casualties. We released the driver from the mob and helped him into an apartment nearby…My staff served as a barrier between him and the excited mob; the policemen were hurt but not one civilian was injured.12
Speaking before the Knesset committee on October 12, Jamal apologized for driving into the Jewish area and said he had “made a mistake.” Despite this, Israeli police arrested Jamal for “harming religious sensitivities, speeding and reckless endangerment” and remanded him in custody. There were no reports of arrests specifically for the attempted lynching of Jamal and his companions. 13
The Settler Connection
Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews live in close proximity in Acre, a U.N. World Heritage site, as they have done for generations. But in recent years, extremist Jewish groups affiliated with West Bank settlers have moved in with the stated aim of making the city more Jewish.
Palestinians are concentrated in the central old city and near the harbor while Jews are established in the eastern part and outer rings. The vast majority of the Jewish residents of the city are Mizrahim-working class Jews whose first generation came as immigrants to Israel from Arab countries. Mizrahim, although Jews, also faced severe discrimination by an Israeli state dominated by European Ashkenazi Jewish elites. Both communities are disadvantaged in different ways. Many Palestinians in the city are the survivors and descendants of those who were forced to leave their homes when Israel was established in 1948. All but 3,000 of the city’s 13,000 Palestinian citizens in 1948 were forced out. Today, Palestinians comprise about 27 percent of the city’s population. Like all Palestinian citizens of Israel, they have experienced systematic legal, social and economic discrimination and political exclusion. Mizrahim were often pushed to the edges of Israeli Jewish society and in many cases were housed in the former homes of expelled Palestinians. 14 Culturally marginalized and much poorer than Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahim have become the base constituency for the right-wing Likud party, Shas and other overtly racist anti-Arab parties.
Given the numbers of people involved in the troubles, long-time Jewish residents were certainly among them. But some Arab residents blamed the worsening tension not on long-time residents but on an influx of militant youth affiliated with the national religious West Bank settler movement. Indeed, Baruch Marzel, a settler leader from near Hebron in the West Bank, visited Acre during the riots and vowed to help Jews in the city to set up a “defense organization.”15 Barzel was a leader of the banned Kach party founded by the late Meir Kahane, which supports the expulsion of all Palestinians, and he remains a prominent leader of racist settler groups.
Yeshivat Hesder-Akko founded in 2001 is a pro-settler national religious school in the midst of a now majority Arab neighborhood called Wolfson. Over the years, many of the area’s Jewish residents had become more affluent and moved out, and poorer Arabs moved in. The Yeshiva is run by Yossi Stern, a rabbi from the militant West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. Stern, who is also on the Acre city council, told The Washington Post last year that he and his associates were working on projects designed to “attract Jews to Acre,” including a 350 unit housing complex designated for Jewish military families and another yeshiva. Palestinian residents and leaders consider these efforts to be part of a systematic assault on their presence in the city using tactics long deployed against Palestinians in the West Bank.16 Some accuse Acre’s Likud mayor of supporting the efforts.
Yeshivat Hesder-Akko’s own website states that “[f]rom a luxuriant Jewish neighborhood it [Wolfson] has turned into a decrepit Arab neighborhood.” The school, whose students are Israeli military-religious trainees, is to “to try to return and strengthen the Jewish character of the city.” Although the city was “almost lost” to Jews, the site states that “the long awaited salvation has begun.” According to the website, the yeshiva was built with funds from a donor in New York.17 Volunteers have also raised funds from synagogues in the United States for the “special aim of the yeshiva [which] is to attract more young Jewish families by strengthening and maintaining the Zionist Jewish character of this ancient Jewish city.”18
Two years ago, similar but much less serious disturbances occurred in Acre during another Jewish holiday. Arab Knesset member Zakour had previously written to Israel’s public security minister appealing for police protection for the Arab communities against harassment by Jewish extremists, including the stoning of Arab cars during Jewish holidays.
An almost identical hesder-yeshiva (this term means a school for Israeli men who combine religious study with service in Israeli army units) was recently founded in the Arab Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, south of Tel-Aviv, also with the goal of increasing the Jewish population of that city.19
The events in Acre coincide with an upsurge in violence by the radical settler movement against Palestinians across the Israeli-occupied West Bank including a pipe bomb attack against an Israeli left-wing professor. 20 While those actions have received more attention, the activities of affiliated groups against Palestinian citizens of Israel have been largely ignored.
Reactions in Israel
Arab leaders in Acre met with police officials and publicly called for calm and reconciliation, and they also condemned Jamal’s incursion into the Jewish area regardless of how innocent. On October 12, Arab Knesset member Abbas Zakour accompanied Jamal to Israel’s parliament to make his public apology in an attempt to appease the Jewish community and restore calm. Yossi Beilin, leader of the Left-Zionist Meretz party, blamed Israel’s neglect of the Arab community, particularly since the October 2000 shooting of 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel by the police.21 One Palestinian member of the Knesset called the clashes “a pogrom perpetrated by Jews against Arab residents” and accused the police of discrimination.
Israeli national leaders, including caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister designate Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres, called for calm and called on “both sides” to refrain from violence. They portrayed the events as being religious and communal in origin and did not note the political context of efforts to judaize the city. Peres visited Acre and convened a meeting of Arab and Jewish civic and religious leaders aimed at restoring peace. 22
Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, the head of Israel’s Islamic movement, accused Israeli political and religious leaders of facilitating the actions of extremists over a long period of time with the goal of heightening tensions so that Palestinians inside Israel could eventually be expelled. He said Acre’s Palestinian population was being targeted for “cleansing” and that Arabs in other coastal cities including Haifa and Jaffa could be next. 23 The fears that events in Acre were evidence of a concerted effort to expel them were widely echoed by Palestinians in Israel.
Some of the Israeli politicians who have been most outspoken in calling for the expulsion of Palestinians and supporting radical settlers did their best to confirm such fears, engaging in the kind of incitement that has been escalating in recent years. 24 Knesset member, former cabinet minister and settler Effie Eitam called the events “an anti-Semitic pogrom at the heart of Israel on the holiest days of the Jewish people.” Another member called on the authorities to “respond harshly to the Arab pogrom on Yom Kippur.” Esterina Tartman, a Knesset member of former Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party, called for the removal of Palestinians citizens from Israel on the grounds that “the pogrom in [Acre] is yet another confirmation that Arab Israelis are the real danger threatening the state.” 25
Some Jewish residents of the city circulated calls for Jews to boycott Arab businesses to punish the Palestinian population. 26
Reactions among Other Palestinians
Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories generally viewed the events in Acre as a continuation of Israeli state violence of the kind routinely directed against them. They also reasserted their identification and solidarity with Palestinians inside Israel.
Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) elected in January 2006 and now confined to Gaza, said that his “government was following with concern what was happening in Acre and what the Arab Palestinian population was facing by way of vicious attacks by Zionist settlers.” Haniyeh added that these attacks were part of a strategy to force Palestinians out of their land and homes.” A Hamas-affiliated website also condemned what it called the silence of the Arab regimes and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. 27
Hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza City took part in a “popular conference in solidarity with the people of Acre” at which leaders of many political factions expressed unity with Palestinians in Israel.28 Thousands marched in a solidarity rally in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp.
A handful of Palestinian resistance factions said they could take “revenge” if actions targeting Palestinians in Acre continued. 29
A search for official reactions from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas did not yield any results.
Although Israel has officially recognized the systematic discrimination faced by the country’s Palestinian citizens and the fact that little has ever been done to address it, Israeli leaders tended to view the events in Acre as being about “Arab-Jewish” community relations inside the country. They typically respond to Arab-Jewish tensions with promises of better funding for Arab communities, although such pledges are almost never fulfilled.
The violent actions of settler groups against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have gone unchecked by the Israeli army. There is now clear evidence of similar organized, planned violence being directed at Palestinians inside Israel. There is no sign that the Israeli state is prepared to confront it any more than it does in the West Bank. Unless this changes, there is a strong likelihood that violence may resume and spread notwithstanding the precariously restored calm. This may destroy the remaining threads of coexistence inside Israel. Jewish extremists would see that as a success if their goal is to create the conditions for the removal of Palestinians from Israel.
Palestinians across the political spectrum, inside and outside Israel, saw the events as a manifestation of the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict rather than a local community-relations matter. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the events highlighted their own precarious situation in the face of mounting racist incitement against them by Israeli politicians and media. The arrest and detention of Tawfiq Jamal, even after he publicly apologized at the Knesset and barely escaped from a lynch mob according to official sources, is likely to be seen as a further provocation and injustice by beleaguered Palestinians in Israel.
Historically, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority have refused to represent the interests of Palestinians inside Israel. Despite this, Palestinians at the grassroots level throughout historic Palestine and the diaspora have maintained their ties. They are expressing new forms of cross-border solidarity and political action.
The international community has always treated Israel’s violations of the rights of the 1.5 million Palestinians inside Israel as an internal matter. The events in Acre, and especially the role of the national religious settler movement, provide early warning that this already inadequate approach will be even more ill-equipped to cope with spreading strife that will not respect lines on a map.
Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon. The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
1 Jack Khoury, Nadav Shragai and Yoav Stern, “Acre sees worst violence in years as Jews and Arabs resume clashes,” Haaretz (website), 9 October 2008, Update of 21.29.